Bringing an Unfortunately Obscure Educational Movement to Life

It is a testament to Paul Avrich’s talents as a historian and writer that his book on the Modern School Movement, a libertarian educational movement of the early twentieth century, remains not only the essential text on an unfortunately obscure topic, but also a worthwhile resource for understanding the various currents of American radicalism and reform of the era.

More than three decades after its original publication, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States is perhaps even more relevant today. Its lessons in youth liberation are much needed in a society with such a widespread fear of unsupervised youth. Its lessons in education reform – from both good and bad experiences – can only help when kids are hammered with more standardized tests and policy debates rarely have the children’s experiences as their central focus. Its lessons in anarchist history will help readers with various levels of knowledge in the subject to better understand a philosophy and movement that is too rarely understood.

Paul Avrich (1931-2006) was a professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His early work focused on labor movements in the Russian Revolution, and from there he began to focus more on the anarchist movements of Russia and the United States. He published numerous books on various topics in anarchist history and typically approaches his subjects with the attitude of an admiring outsider, an academic inspired by the anarchists yet not fully convinced by their philosophy.

In The Modern School Movement, Avrich draws from an impressive array of sources, including archival documents and numerous interviews with aging participants in the movement. As Avrich notes in the introduction, the book employs a biographical approach to the subject. This approach succeeds brilliantly at shedding light on the creators and drivers of the Modern School Movement, some of whom are famous for other exploits and some of whom are relatively obscure. By understanding the people involved, the reader gains a thorough understanding of what the movement was about, and gets the idea that its successes and shortcomings depended greatly on the personalities involved.

The biographical approach in the book does have a drawback in that certain important characters become the focus of the narrative, sometimes at the expense of understanding the day-to-day operation of the schools. In addition, not much is revealed about what the school’s opponents or the police are up to while all the experiments in education are going on. Yet the biographical approach makes the book extremely valuable for what it is: a fascinating study of a real, constructive thing that anarchists did, a libertarian project that other rebels and reformers supported, a movement that was deeply connected with and thus offers an informative perspective on political and social currents of its time, and an illuminating view of a history with interesting characters and lasting effects that is too often overlooked.

The text begins by introducing the life of Francisco Ferrer and his ideas of libertarian education. Francisco Ferrer was a Spanish radical who is sometimes thought of as a liberal revolutionary or reformer, though Avrich establishes his ties to the anarchist movement. On September 8, 1901, Ferrer opened the Modern School in Barcelona with 18 boys and 12 girls in attendance.

Believing that “rulers have always taken care to control the education of the people,” Ferrer opposed education controlled by the church, a powerful institution in Spain, as well as government-run education. In his school, the rights and dignity of the child were essential. There was no rigid curriculum but instead a give-and-take between children and instructors. Children and parents participated in the administration of the school. No exams or grades were given. Manual and intellectual learning went together, and the school emphasized learning through action in a hands-on environment. Parents were encouraged to attend evening and weekend classes taught by scholars. Education was intended to lead to personal improvement, which would bring about improvement in society. While no specific doctrine was taught to the children, Ferrer’s school intended to impart the values of anti-capitalism and anti-militarism, ideals of cooperation and liberation, and sympathy for oppressed people.

Avrich establishes Ferrer’s place in a broader history of anarchist education, and discusses thinkers and experiments that Ferrer was drawn to. Mikhail Bakunin summed up the views of many libertarian educators when he said that “Children belong neither to their parents nor to society. They belong to themselves and their future liberty.” Anyone looking for educational experiments to study will find plenty of ideas in the introduction, from Tolstoy’s home to the Paris Commune.

Ferrer, an energetic and efficient organizer, implanted libertarian education in Barcelona, “the main stronghold of Spanish anarchism.” The authorities of the Spanish church and state were alarmed and offended by his efforts. The school was closed in 1906, and in 1909, Ferrer was executed after a show trial for supposedly starting a brief insurrection that had begun as a strike against conscription for a colonial war.

Ferrer’s political trial and execution sparked outrage internationally and also brought great attention to his educational methods. Schools based on Ferrer’s model were founded in multiple countries in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. The United States became home to the most extensive Ferrer movement, which is where Avrich’s detailed account begins.

Avrich traces the rise and fall of the American movement beginning with the Francisco Ferrer Association in New York City. He describes the founding of the New York school in 1911, the school’s difficulties and achievements, and its important secondary purpose as an adult education center and cultural center. Throughout the book important personalities are profiled. While reformers of various political affiliations were involved, anarchists took the lead in organizing and operating the schools. Avrich briefly catalogs the numerous short-lived Ferrer schools established throughout the country, then traces the center of Modern School activity from New York to the Ferrer colony at Stelton, New Jersey, where a Ferrer school operated from 1915 to 1953. Then the narrative goes to the Mohegan colony in New York (school operational 1924-1941), and back to Stelton and also Lakewood, New Jersey (school operational 1933-1958). The narrative tends to follow the travels of important school organizers, especially Harry Kelly, Elizabeth and Alexis Ferm, and Nellie and Jim Dick.

Avrich ends the book with a brief conclusion about what the Modern School Movement meant and what its impact was. Unfortunately, this section is too brief for a thorough evaluation of the schools, probably the book’s main shortcoming.

Avrich notes that the Modern School Association disbanded just as radicalism in the United States was making a comeback in the early 1960s. By the mid 1960s, many alternative schools were being founded. Avrich states that “In the majority of cases, these ventures were undertaken with little or no consciousness of the libertarian tradition that preceded them. Yet a few direct links can be established with the Modern Schools.” He then takes one paragraph to list different people who were involved in both movements. The short space given to this part of the story is disappointing, especially when recalling the numerous pages the book spends on the lives of several artists long after they taught at the New York City Ferrer Center. The book contains excerpts of letters that Jim Dick wrote to A.S. Neill of Summerhill fame, and Avrich notes that the two educators had regular correspondence. Yet the effects of Dick’s letters on Neill is not explored. On page 343, Avrich notes that among the many notable visitors to Stelton was John Louis Horn, professor of education at Mills College in Oakland, California, “who was greatly impressed with what he saw.” Yet Avrich doesn’t go further in saying how Horn’s work was impacted or whether he discussed his findings among his colleagues. Fortunately, Avrich has done excellent groundbreaking work that later historians can build upon.

Toward the end of the book Avrich describes the old guard of anarchists dying out in the late 1930s to the early 1950s, without effective successors among the new generation. So does this mean that the anarchist school was a failure?

Avrich interviewed many Modern School graduates in the course of his research. While he does give voice to the students of the Modern School, he offers less discussion of their lives than the topic deserves. Quotes from them appear frequently in the book to comment on particular topics, they generally recall their school days fondly, and some of their successes after Modern School life are mentioned (for example, Emma Cohen was valedictorian of her high school class and later became a child psychologist; Edgar Tafel became an architect who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright). Avrich spends about a page in the book’s conclusion discussing his impressions of the students in general. However there are no in-depth life stories as there are for some of the principals and teachers. This is unfortunate, not only because it makes the students’ experiences less clear, but also because Modern School graduates have lived some interesting lives.

Avrich agrees with a Stelton school staffer who noted that Modern School alumni tended to be “more interesting” than average people, and versatile and fresh in thought and outlook. By material standards, students “were not much more successful than society as a whole,” but material wealth was not especially valued in the Modern School Movement.

Avrich writes that the great majority of the graduates “appear to have carried away a strong cooperative and libertarian ethic, a spirit of mutual aid and individual sovereignty, which has remained with them throughout their adult years, regardless of their politics or occupation.” So in a way, the schools were successful in their mission: non-doctrinaire education that would bring out libertarian tendencies and personal talents of the students. It was not as revolutionary as perhaps the militant Modern School organizers like Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Hippolyte Havel would have hoped, yet it brought out the small but significant changes that less revolutionary personalities – the Ferms, Joseph Cohen and Harry Kelly in their older years, early supporters like Will Durant and Alden Freeman – were looking for. More Modern School graduates in the world would most like likely lead to a world they were happier with.

Ultimately, Avrich’s Modern School Movement is a story of the founders of the Modern School, and the narrative ends with their deaths. Avrich conveys the sense that the Modern School belonged to an earlier era, that it was a product of the Emma Goldman generation, an inspiration, if not a direct predecessor, to rebels and reformers of later generations. The book provides a thorough understanding of what the American Modern School Movement was and did.

Avrich’s knowledge of early twentieth century politics, culture, and radicalism shine through in the book, and the context he provides in the narrative make it more accessible as well as informative. It is true that a reader might feel overwhelmed at times by the number of names and references to political movements, but Avrich is generally good at providing introductory information. For readers willing to dive in, The Modern School Movement opens a fascinating window on the reform and revolutionary movements of the early twentieth century, the ideas, the personalities, the connections, the internationalism. Avrich shows how various movements interacted. Events that united them – Ferrer’s martyrdom, strikes – events that split them – explosions, war, revolution – all take their places in the rise and fall of the Modern School Movement. Apart from the particulars of the Modern School Movement, the book provides excellent insights into early to mid American political and cultural history, much of which will probably be new to the casual reader or provide helpful context or refreshers for those with a serious interest in the field.

Today’s readers may be struck by some of the features of the Modern Schools that were considered radical: teaching boys and girls together, working-class children conducting scientific observations and experiments, lectures on evolution and geologic principles, free scholarly lectures where working-class people were welcome. For every feature that appears almost fantastical to someone who has only known mainstream education – the lack of curriculum or grades, the free interplay between teacher and student, the emphasis on hands-on experience over early reading, there is a seemingly mundane innovation. Yet the seemingly mundane is actually amazing when one considers the real improvement in peoples’ lives that was revolutionary for the time.

In Avrich’s account the pushing of particular values at Ferrer schools generally appears to be of a lighter character than such familiar rituals as the Pledge of Allegiance and Founding Father commemoration. No particular doctrine was taught, despite the best efforts of communists to convince school administrators (mostly fellow parents) to do otherwise.

The Modern School Movement is a pioneering work of great value to students of anarchism, historical American radicalism, and alternative education. It is also quite relevant to those with a general interest in twentieth century American political history. The 400 page text is filled with memorable personalities, and the anarchists and their allies are shown in their full humanity, with their triumphs, failings, excitement, doubts, and disagreements. The book is highly recommended both as a foundation for further research and as a fascinating read in a little known topic.

Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. AK Press, 2006. Originally published by Princeton University Press, 1980.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory